Bosnia: Anti-terror back and forth
Four terror suspects are released due to lack of evidence, but police and intelligence sources tell ISN Security Watch that the case is by no means closed, ISA Executive Director Anes Alic and 60 Minutes’ Damir Kaletovic write for ISN Security Watch.
Four Bosnian Muslims arrested in Sarajevo in March have been released from custody after prosecutors failed to win a terrorism indictment against them due to lack of evidence, despite the fact that explosives and other military equipment were found the possession of the suspects.
While Federation police and Bosnian State Intelligence Agency (OSA) sources warn of the public security danger in releasing the suspects, the Prosecutor’s Office has offered little in the way of explanation, saying only that aside from the explosives and military equipment found in their possession, there was no evidence that they were planning a terrorist attack.
Bosnia and Herzegovina’s Federation Anti-Terror Unit on 20 March arrested five men: Rijad Rustempasic, Muhamed Meco, Abdulah Handzic and Edis Velic, all in their early thirties and from Sarajevo. (The fifth, Muhamed Ficer, Rustempasic’s brother-in-law, was released a couple of days later.
The four arrested were members of the local Wahhabi movement – a Saudi-based and financed order following a strict interpretation of Islam. Some of the suspects were already well known to the police for their radical activities. The group had been under surveillance for several months by the Federation Anti-Terror Unit.
In a house rented by Rustempasic, police seized anti-tank mines, laser sights, electronic equipment, topographic maps and bomb-making manuals. Several days later, police arrested another suspect with connections to the group. After cooperating with police, that suspect was released. Shortly afterward, Federation police raided two abandoned summer cottages in Barice, just outside Sarajevo, finding more explosives and munitions.
The group came under closer scrutiny by Federation police and the OSA after an intercepted telephone conversation between Rustempasic and another arrested member of the group. “Christmas passed and we didn’t do anything,” one of the group’s members was heard telling Rustempasic late on 25 December 2007, alerting the authorities.
Federation police had reason to believe that the next opportunity to attack would be the next Catholic holiday, Easter. Analyzing intercepted communiqués, police concluded that the potential targets were Sarajevo’s central cathedral and the Franciscan monastery in the central Bosnian city of Fojnica.
Aside from Catholic institutions, police also have reason to believe that the group was planning to sabotage power stations and launch attacks against the European Forces’ (EUFOR) Liaison and Observation Team (LOT). EUFOR has 45 LOTs stationed across the country.
According to a source from Federation police, which is running the investigation, the alleged leader of the group is Rustempasic, who was born and raised in Bugojno but moved to Sarajevo four years ago, and has a thick police file. In the past decade, his name has appeared in connection with several investigations related to terrorism and radical Islam, the source told ISN Security Watch on condition of anonymity.
The police source also said that Rustempasic was one of the most notorious and violent Bosnian radical Muslims they had investigated so far, and that he had managed to evade prison thanks to the tolerance of the local authorities in Bugojno.
Federation police suspect that Rustempasic was responsible for mining the tower of the Catholic church in the village of Humci, near Bugojno, in July 1996. No suspects were ever arrested in connection with the attack. Police also believe that Rustempasic was behind numerous threats against Bosnian Croat returnees to Bugojno and other central Bosnian cities where there is a Bosniak (Bosnian Muslim) majority.
In 2004, Rustempasic was arrested by NATO-led Stabilization Force (SFOR) troops in Bosnia for illegal possession of weapons and suspicion of terrorist-related activities. The international forces had found nearly five kilograms of explosives in his possession. For that crime, the court in Bugojno sentenced him to five months parole, during which time he relocated to Sarajevo.
During the 1992-1995 war, Rustempasic was a member of the El-Mujahid unit, headquartered in central Bosnia, where he developed his bomb-making skills, the source said. The unit was under the official jurisdiction of the Bosnian army during the war, though it operated autonomously and was comprised of foreign fighters from Islamic countries.
“Since 1997 we could see that Rustempasic was potentially dangerous, given his history, membership in the El-Mujahid unit and open expression of radicalism, and that we could expect problems from him,” a retired Federation police investigator told ISN Security Watch. The source asked that his name not be used due to the risk of revenge by radicals he had been investigating. He said that the arrest of Rustempasic should have come even sooner, but he had enjoyed some form of immunity in his hometown of Bugojno.
After relocating to Sarajevo, Rustempasic made contact with other members of the Wahhabi movement, most notably with another arrestee Edis Velic who, according to the police source, spent some time fighting in Chechnya several years ago.
ISN Security Watch’s source in the OSA said that the agency had information that in 2001 Rustempasic spent time in Jordan and Saudi Arabia, but the reasons for his travel are not known. Also, the OSA registered that in 2000 he attempted to go to Chechnya as a volunteer, but failed. There is also evidence that since 2004, Rustempasic has been in frequent telephone contact with Bosnians living in Germany and Austria, mostly radical Muslims, according to police sources.
In addition, the OSA said that late 2007 and early 2008, Rustempasic contacted acquaintances in Germany and Austria, requesting that they secure for him night vision optics and scopes, which he said was for a hunting trip.
“But what gained our attention was that person he spoke with said he could find those ‘silent’ ones. We realized that they were talking about gun silencers. The information we have is that part of the ordered military equipment came to Bosnia and Herzegovina from Austria. We don’t know how much of it came to the destination except that the stuff was shipped by buses in ordinary duffle bags,” an OSA source told ISN Security Watch.
ISN Security Watch’s Federation police source confirmed that during the raid on Rustempasic’s house they confiscated a sniper shotgun equipped with night vision optics and other technology that made investigators doubt that it would be used for hunting. The OSA source said that Rustempasic ordered from Germany and Austria another 11 sniper shotguns, but it remains unclear whether those were ever delivered, and if they were, where the equipment is now.
Sources from the OSA and Federation police said that even though prosecutors released the suspects, they will continue the investigation, focusing particularly on the group’s contacts in Germany and Austria, in an attempt to nail down the supply and financing chain.
Both sources confirmed that the center of the investigation is cleric Muhamed Porca, who runs the Islamic community’s administrative unit in the Austrian capital, Vienna. After several investigations in the last few years related to the radical Muslims in Bosnia, Porca appeared to be a key financial and ideological supporter of radical forces in Bosnia.
Though Austrian authorities earlier ignored warnings from Federation police and the OSA about radical forces in Austria – forces who roots date back to the early 1990s – after the recent developments, including the arrest of a Bosnian refugee for allegedly attempting to bomb the US Embassy in the Vienna, cooperation between the two countries’ security forces has improved.
General Franz Lang, Austria’s director of operational functions, told ISN Security Watch that Austrian and Bosnian police recently had created joint mechanisms and methods for fighting potential terror threats.
“Southeast Europe is a very important area for us related to the security and safety of Austrian citizens. Therefore we created the cooperation on an operative level, which has already given us certain results,” Lang said. He did not provide any further details on these results.
The arrest of the Rustempasic’s group is the second major anti-terrorism operation in Bosnia in three years. The ongoing investigation shows so far that Rustempasic’s group and the alleged terror plots are connected to earlier terrorism-related arrests in the country, and that the network extends to western European capitals, namely Vienna.
In October 2005, in operation called “Maximus,” Federation police arrested five men, three of whom were indicted and later convicted on a string of terror charges.
Mirsad Bektasevic, a Swedish national from Serbia; Danish-born Turkish citizen Abdulkadir Cesur; and Bosnian national Bajro Ikanovic were arrested in late 2005 in two Sarajevo suburbs. The three were found guilty of “intending to carry out a terrorist act” in Bosnia or another European country with the aim of forcing the withdrawal of troops from Iraq or Afghanistan. During the raid on the home of Bektasevic and Abdulkadir, police found a suicide bomb belt, nearly 20 kilograms of explosives, guns and a bomb-making video.
Prior to his arrival to Sarajevo, Bektasevic was active in trying to recruit jihadists through internet sites, using the codename “Maximus.” Correspondence between Bektasevic and some Islamists in Denmark led to further arrests and prosecutions. Bektasevic was in contact with Abdul Basit, also known as Abu-Lifa, sentenced by a Danish court in February last year to seven years in prison. He was believed to be a financier of Bektasevic’s group.
Having previously been marked as potential militant by Federation and international authorities, Rustempasic appeared even in this case. According to the police source, Bektasevic was also in contact with Rustempasic in the two-month period between his arrival in Bosnia and his arrest.
The source also said that at the time, Rustempasic was questioned by police and prosecutors and gave very valuable information regarding Bektasevic’s case. Investigators had no evidence against Rustempasic in that case.
The police source said that a couple of years ago, Rustempasic was often seen accompanied by Ikanovic and Amir Bajric (the fifth arrested from Bektasevic’s group, charged with supplying of explosives). The three were suspected of conducting “paramilitary activities,” including practice shooting in Bajric’s cottage on the Treskavica mountain above Sarajevo.
The Federation Interior Ministry recent launched an internal investigation into local police and prison guards at the city of Zenica, due to an incident involving Bektasevic. During a routine inspection of the prison cells, police authorities were shocked to see Bektasevic using a telephone.
“At the moment we entered his cell, Bektasevic, clearly surprised, jumped from his bed and smashed the phone against the wall,” the police officer who supervised the inspection told ISN Security Watch.
The Federation police source also said that investigation showed that his phone was using a Austrian mobile network card and that Bektasevic had been sending messages to someone in Austria. But due the damage of the phone and the card it was impossible to extract further details of those messages. The investigation on how he managed to get access to a mobile phone is ongoing.
Anes Alic, based in Sarajevo, is ISN Security Watch’s senior correspondent in Southeastern Europe and the Executive Director of ISA Consulting.
Damir Kaletovic is Sarajevo-based investigative reporter for Federal Television’s (FTV) “60 Minutes” news program.
This article was originally published on ISN Security Watch.